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When a Game’s a Game (Not a Film)

With all the talk about The Last of Us, and the popularity of “film-like” games, it’s got me to thinking. When is a game a game? What basic elements of interactivity create something that just can’t be chopped up and placed into another medium?

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Ironically, the game that made me start thinking of this was Telling Lies. On the surface, it’s about as filmic as you can get. You scrub through actual video, clicking words in the subtitles to find other videos. Through this exploration, the full story becomes apparent.

It is so much more a film than almost any game you could care to name and yet, by its very structure, it becomes something that just does not work in any other medium. To recreate this story, you’d need to make it totally linear, or cut it up in someway akin to Christopher Nolan’s Memento. But even then, it wouldn’t be the same. The craving for discovery, the sudden surprise breakthrough? They only work in a player-led context.

Telling Lies isn’t perfect, but it did what it set out to do. As gaming has evolved, it is interesting how we’ve borrowed so much from other mediums. The Last of Us, so heavily influenced by cinema, has in turn become a hit cinematic TV show. Cinematic stories have become a must within the industry, with gameplay simply connecting other chunks of story.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly popular, and that in itself is cause for celebration. But in soaking up things other mediums are so much better at, do we lose something that only games can do?

Games and Films

This is a relatively modern problem. If you look at a list of retro classics, you’ll see plenty of things that only work within the confines of video games. Platformers, beat-em-ups, point and click. They worked as video games because they couldn’t possibly work the same way outside of the medium. If you need proof, look no further than the original Mario movie. They can be adapted, yes, but not without stripping out all of the “game” and building the framework of other mediums in its place. Sonic the Hedgehog works as a film, a Saturday Morning Cartoon, a comic book, another Saturday Morning Cartoon, novels and lord knows what else. But in making that jump, it is no longer Sonic the Hedgehog: The Game.

There are no shortage of games that offer similar experiences today, especially in the Indie scene. Telling Lies is just three or so years old, and spiritual successor Immortality came out last year. Some mainstream games also only work as games. Elden Ring would be a pretty uninteresting film.

But undoubtedly the industry standard has become the thing borrowed from other mediums. Final Fantasy 7 – impossible to recreate in film because of the sheer size of the world, the amount of people you can talk to, the beaten track you can ignore – becomes Final Fantasy VII: Remake. You travel from place to place, people speak to you as you pass them, the story plays out in conversations or cutscenes. Side stories are brief. Your interactivity is limited to overcoming roadblocks, either in terms of bosses or in terms of literally holding the stick to move forward. Remove those, and the game becomes an interactive movie in a way – weirdly – Telling Lies never could.

What the industry needs is variety and, despite popular misconception, there’s plenty of it about. But the next time you’re playing a game, ask yourself if it’s fully taking advantage of what only games can do. If its gameplay could be replaced with stylish action scenes or shadowy slinking through abandoned warehouses, what more could it do to explore the medium?

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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